This day last week an adventure began for me just off the Canary Island of La Gomera. I will never forget it. I had an opportunity to fish for the iconic blue marlin which is a summer visitor to these waters. In the eyes of many anglers the blue marlin is the holy grail of game fishes. I am a stranger to fishing of this kind but fortunately I was in the company of a very experienced big game fisherman, Johan Terblanche, and was lucky enough to be aboard his beautiful 48´ boat Impi which was skippered by Mark Lee.

I had set off from Málaga in the early hours and a couple of flights and a bus ride later I showed up in San Sebastian de La Gomera where the marina was a short walk away from the bus station. Johan, his wife Carel and Mark were already aboard and within a few minutes of my arrival Impi had cast off and was leaving the harbour of San Sebastian in her wake. The ocean was opening to us and with it the prospect of some of the best blue marlin fishing that can be found anywhere.

La Gomera is the second smallest of the Canary Islands and lies westward of the much larger island of Tenerife which can be seen quite clearly from the eastern side of the island. As a backdrop to our adventure we had the peak of Mount Teide which is the highest point in all of Spain even though it lies far to the south and west of the Iberian Peninsula. Throughout our fishing we could see the coast of la Gomera quite clearly and also, in the greater distance the looming summit of Teide which often seemed strangely disconnected and floating improbably on a bank of low cloud.

There is so much to say about the boat and the ocean and and the wildlife here that I will not try to squeeze everything into this post but will revisit these topics in the near future. For the moment I would like to skip forward a few hours from the beginning of my first outing aboard Impi. The events preceding this will, again, be revisited in future posts.

Big game fish, being among the top predators of marine food chains, are necessarily rare even in the most productive fisheries in the world. Although it is not the only way to target such fish, trolling with lures is the default approach taken. It has the advantage of covering a lot of water. In an 8 hour troll at a speed of 9 knots, a single lure might expect to “swim” through 72 nautical miles. And even such coverage of water has no guarantee of success. The boat will usually troll at least 4 lures, often more, at different distances behind the boat. These may be fished directly behind the stern of the boat or they may be spread out using outriggers with two rods fishing off the right outrigger and two from the left. All of this was new to me and the technical aspects are quite fascinating. I hope to describe how the rods are set up, at least as far as I understand this myself, in a future post. But I have a story to tell first and this is the story of how I nearly caught a marlin.

Somebody described the experience of war as being prolonged periods of boredom punctuated by sheer terror. This adage seems to go all the way to the first world war and I doubt if anyone knows who was its originator. It is not a thousand miles away from the experience of big game fishing although “boredom” is not the word to describe what happens out on the ocean, even if the fish are not biting. Mark tells me that each day out is different. Whales come and go, dolphins too. The birds have their stories to tell. And of course the sea is perpetually in a state of unrest and fights tirelessly to defy conformity with each wave and swell uniquely sculpted. The earth may exist through tracts of deep time beyond imagination but there will never be sizeable distortion of the ocean surface that will, in its detail, be quite like another.

And then there is the terror although again “terror” is not quite a word that fits. For much of the time the fishermen is looking astern to where the lures are working the surface and diving or burrowing or crashing in the confusion of white water behind the boat. This can happen for hour after hour and it is easy to drift away with the rolling motion of the boat. When a fish strikes a lure the mass of the fish creates a resistance to the movement of the lure and the the reel screams as the boat continues with its forward momentum. The strike can truly come out of the blue or there can be some signal to the angler or to the skipper that conditions have swung in our favour.

It was Mark who noticed the shearwaters gathering and that they were animated. This is a sign that bait fish are in the area. As we closed in we could see flying fish breaking the surface. Another promising sign. Then dolphins, yet another. Mark and Johan figured that there may be skipjack tuna working at baitfish here and they set up a rod for these small tuna and a small lure that would likely be taken. With the commotion created by the birds and dolphins there came a certain feeling that our moment was imminent. The tuna lure was presented from the one of the rod holders behind the bridge and a generous amount of line was paid out. It was not out for long before the reel screamed.

Then hell all broke loose. Mark has been in this position many times before and knows exactly what to do. I climbed down from the flybridge and was given the rod. Johan helped me into the fighting chair and I clipped the reel in on either side. During all this time line continued to peel off the reel. The fish was astern. The reel was hemorrhaging line. Mark and Johan tell me they saw the marlin at this point thrashing at the surface perhaps 400 metres. As for me I was getting to terms with a predicament I had never experienced before. I understand now just how many things happened without my knowledge. Johan reeled in the lines from at least four other rods and stowed them out of the way so that they would not interfere with proceedings and so that the lures would not be a hazard to those on board. At his time too the boat was put into reverse and seawater pushed over the transom on top of us.

The fish remained deep and, from my position in the chair, the yellow line vanished beyond the end of my rod and pointed down to the floor of the ocean. And then the fish and I settled into a protracted tug of war. The fish was bigger than me and when it wanted line it took it. And then, if I was lucky, I might steal a little back. The fish took more away. I took a little back.

Johan told me when this had been going on for half an hour that he suspected the fish was not aware that he was hooked. That was when I realised I was in for a long afternoon! And so it went. The fish was deep and burrowed into the ocean with a raw power that seemed unreal to me. And then it came up. The angle of the line to the surface became shallower. The fish came closer. And then briefly I saw it. It was a brown discolouration of the water. And then the fish reverted to form and went deep. It is not what any of us wanted but it was the marlin calling the shots.

Later I had it up to the surface again and then, for a brief moment, the marlin took to the air and cleared the water completely during a twisting leap that I can still see now when I close my eyes.

And then back down it went. Mark yelled instructions from the flybridge. I had to use my left arm to keep the rod clear of the stern. If it had rested on the stern the fish would have broken me. I was instructed to crank whenever the fish eased even by the smallest degree.

Eventually we got the marlin close to the boat. Johan put on a pair of leather gloves used to pull the fish to the boat. There is a part of the running line, close to the leader where the line is doubled over. If the mate touches this doubled section the fish is considered to have been captured legally. Johan said we got to within 20 feet of this magical mark when the fish, close to the boat now, lurched heavily several times in very quick succession and the leader parted. The fish was gone.

I must be honest here. I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I could not speak. There were no words.

People do not catch marlin. Boats do. Mark and Johan and I did everything we could to catch that marlin and in the final instance I felt I had failed us all. But I took some comfort in the fact that I had not committed a lethal error of lowering the rod to the transom or allowing slack line to develop. I had not given up. I felt and continue to feel that I gave it everything that I had. And there was comfort too in the knowledge that the small hook used would rust out quickly and the fish would continue its mysterious travels through the ocean unharmed.

Mark had some consoling words. We were unlucky because the marlin had taken the small lure on the light tackle intended to catch “skippies”. He would not have expected us to land a marlin on that gear or even, he told me, keep the fish on the line beyond 5 minutes. I asked him how long the fight had lasted and he told me that it had been three hours and 45 minutes.

And then we continued back to San Sebastian.

There was always tomorrow.

Hard day in the office!